The Word Embodied
Actions and Orientations
“When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear.” (Sir 27:4)
A topic of contention in moral theology today involves what has come to be known as the theory of the “fundamental option.” One viewpoint, considerably simplified here, maintains that there are a number of human actions so grave that they indicate the entire state of soul of a person in relationship to God. Sometimes this has been associated with the notion of mortal sin, an action weighty enough to determine a person's eternal destiny.
The other side stresses the life-orientation of a person, a fundamental option, which is not necessarily summed up in any particular human act, even one that in itself might be considered grave. Thus, someone basically oriented to doing God's will might break a solemn marriage vow; and yet this might not mean that the person has totally lost the state of grace. A particular moral act need not indicate that the sinner has wholly rejected the will of God.
Neither side of the debate will see the other's description as fully adequate. But that is not new. It was evident in the response, for example, that some theologians gave to Pope John Paul II's criticism of the fundamental option in his encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, on moral theology. The Pope stressed that with every freely committed mortal sin a sinner can lose sanctifying grace, charity, and eternal happiness. Some critics deemed this a harsh and rigid emphasis on particular choices which misunderstands the full meaning of “freely committed” actions.
The scriptural images of the tree and the fruit it bears may offer a way out of the impasse. The homey wisdom of Sirach reminds us that even our speech reveals who and what we are. Like the fruit of a tree, the words of a person disclose the kind of mind the person has. We are advised not to evaluate people until we hear their words. In fact, the only way we come to know anything or anyone is by observing their actions.
Jesus, in the Gospel of Luke, also turns to the image of the tree. “A good tree does not bear rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit.” Good persons produce goodness from the goodness of their being, evil from their store of evil. Our acts flow from our being, St. Thomas Aquinas taught us. Gerard Manley Hopkins put it: “The just man justices.”
Clearly then, our actions reveal who and what we are. It is impossible to separate the actions a person does from the person who does them. So those who insist upon the significance of our actions to determine our moral status have a point, especially if they are speaking of acts we do with sufficient reflection and freedom.
“Each of us speaks from our heart's abundance,” Jesus tells the disciples. But can the heart's abundance be revealed in one act? Possibly, but who can tell? It seems that I can summon up as much self-knowledge and self-ownership as humanly possible and give myself to good or evil in a particular act. But when and where this happens is a mystery perhaps inaccessible even to the wisest of us.
What we can be sure of is that we are all sinners. There is a store of evil in all our hearts, the Gospel says. There is a store of good as well. Perhaps this is why St. Peter, who, we might presume, heard these words, would never give up hope in Christ's forbearance and forgiveness, no matter how weighty and catastrophic his moral failure-cowardice, lies, even betrayal.
I think this fact is often missed by antagonists in the fundamental option debate. Some seem eager to prove that people are, indeed, condemned to hell. At times their opponents seem equally eager to prove that none of us could ever deserve that. I propose that we all might merit it, but all could well be saved—especially if we are open to the fact that we need salvation and if we call upon the Lord's name in repentance.
What Jesus often warns against is the danger of judging, not actions, but the human heart. And even in today's Gospel, he reminds us of a truth more basic than our ethical disputes, one which we too frequently forget.
What if all sides of all theological controversies, including the fundamental option debate, lived out the words that Jesus spoke to crowds that sought to touch and follow him? Why look at the speck in your brother's eye when you miss the plank in your own? How can you say to your brother, “Brother, let me remove the speck from your eye,” yet you fail yourself to see the plank lodged in your own. Hypocrite, remove the plank from your own eye first; then you will see clearly enough to remove the speck from your brother's eye.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University